Do people prone to depression and similar illnesses tend to (unwittingly?) form social groups together?
April 3, 2012 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Do people prone to depression and similar illnesses tend to (unwittingly?) form social groups together?

When I look at my circle of closest friends, less-close friends that I "clicked" with immediately, and people that I've been involved with romantically, virtually all of us have pretty serious chronic or recurring issues with depression, anxiety or bipolar.* I don't think that any of us knew this about the others before the friendships became well-established, which in almost all cases was pretty fast.

So, I'm curious whether there's any good quality research examining the hypothesis that people prone to depression (or other mental illnesses) tend to unwittingly seek each other out or prefer each others' company. Or perhaps that certain sub-populations tend to be enriched for this trait, (in our case, we probably all qualify as geeks and either have or are working on graduate degrees) and so social groups formed within those sub-populations tend to have a lot of sufferers?

Obviously, the high proportion of sufferers amongst my friends could just be a fluke. Confirmation bias is probably a factor too, although unless the stats on depression rates in the general population are a *serious* underestimate, it can't be the only explanation.

So: Is there any good work looking at a tendency for depressed (/anxious /bipolar /etc) people to end up together?

*This isn't just a group of hypochondriacs; most of us have been formally diagnosed at some point.
posted by anonymous to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I would posit that...

1) Almost everyone has some sort of "issue" whether they admit it or not.

2) When you develop close friendships with people you find out what their "issue(s)" are.

3) People who accept that they themselves have "issues" and/or have sought help for their "issues" are more accepting of people who also have "issues". Whereas people who don't have any "issue(s)" or refuse to admit they may have an "issue" may spurn people who are more open about their "issue(s)".

So I can picture scenarios where people who are accepting of their "issues" would cluster together.
posted by dgeiser13 at 7:06 AM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

People who have not suffered depression mostly just don't "get it" when I've spoken about what it is to deal with this stuff, whereas people who've lived and struggled with it know exactly what I'm saying, can finish sentences for me, etc and etc.

I'll say "Oh, man, I wanted to jump off the roof!" and the people who've not suffered depression will nod their head, thinking maybe of a time when they got a C on a paper and just how altogether horrible that was -- Devastating! -- but they just don't know what I'm talking about. They can't; they just don't have an accurate reference.

Good for them, too, but I don't necessarily want to hang with them, any more than a PTSD Vietnam vet would want to hang out with some old gray-haired woman who is knitting a hat for her cat.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:42 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Because socializing is an incredibly complex dance of verbal cues, non-verbal cues, shared experiences, emotional reactions, etc? People who are alike tend to group together; there's probably no special rule for those with mild depression or anxiety issues.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:47 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've noticed in high school students that if one of their friends seems to be suffering from depression, an eating disorder, something of that nature, that they will say "oh she's being so weird, she's like depressed or something, she's totally just looking for attention."

If someone doesn't understand or can't sympathize or relate, they might not make the best friend. Certainly not in all cases, but there are people who dismiss mental health issues totally.
posted by sarae at 7:53 AM on April 3, 2012

Yes, I think it's like the stock-picking scam. (Briefly, a con artist picks 100 marks, and tells 50 of them that a certain stock is going to go up, and tells the other 50 that the same stock is going to go down. He then takes the 50 who got the "right" prediction and sells them his next prediction; this time he splits the marks into two groups of 25 and does the same. The 25 people who got two "right" predictions in a row--who think of themselves as the "winners' group"--will now pay over the odds for his amazing infallible track record.)

So you're (I'm) a person with depression and some complicated mental stuff going on. You meet 100 people. Of those 100 people, you "click" with 50 of them around shared interests or sense of humor or something. Of those 50, 25 of them are people whose friendship style is compatible with yours. Of those 25, 12 of them really understand and empathize with what you're going through vis-a-vis the bugs in your mental code.

And you (I) get to the point where you're 47 and you're on anxiety and depression meds and your five closest friends of decades' standing are all on anxiety and/or depression and/or bipolar meds. This isn't because all of us crazy people stick together; it's because in times of stress, the people with the "right" attitude stick with the "winners' group" and become closer friends than ever.

If I look at my ten closest friends, also of decades' standing, the percentage of people on psychiatric meds goes down a bit from 100%. But only a bit.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:17 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

A group of friends and I all found it morbidly hilarious that not only were we all on anti-depressant meds, we had all landed on the same anti-depressant med, after various rounds on the antidepressant merry-go-round (it often takes awhile to find an effective anti-depressant, ie either ineffective, or side-effects). Make of that what you will!

But yes, birds of a feather, etc.

Also, depression and dysfunction in friend-groups can normalise dysfunction, and kind of provoke, and spread it, unfortunately.

I do find it very useful to look at who I am spending time with, and try and stick to the 'healthier' side of the spectrum, e.g. friends who may have suffered from depression in the past, but have largely adapted to life, as I can learn from them.
Also, it is easy to be dragged down when you are depressed, and, this is key, very very hard to be dragged down when you are well. I resist talking to friends when feeling bad as I don't want to drag them down, but with a healthy person, you are very unlikely to do that, which is very helpful to remember when I need to reach out for support.
posted by Elysum at 7:14 PM on June 17, 2012

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